Corner of the Sky
Feuilly and Laforêt sat together in the holding cell, keeping apart from the criminals as best they could. It was not a serious investigation, Feuilly thought. They had plenty of time to compare and coordinate stories if necessary, though coordination proved unnecessary as Laforêt was asked the same sort of questions, including being asked to provide the same written statement. He had supplied one out of fear, which made Feuilly want to smack some sense into him, but he refrained. Not everyone had been taught how to handle an arrest and interrogation.
Unfortunately, he had also been taught that one could be locked up for months without any charges brought, and it was impossible to tell what the inspector had meant when he had said “I have not completed my investigation.” They sat in the corner they had managed to mark out for themselves, thanks to some posturing on Feuilly’s part, and waited.
A few additional prisoners were added throughout the evening, including a familiar black man. A familiar face was both good and bad. The necessity was appalling, but with no sense how long a treason investigation might take, something had to be done. The moment he made eye contact, Feuilly decided it would be much easier if he were to make the approach rather than risk Laforêt overhearing the conversation. He had to make contact with someone if there were any chance of word getting to Babet sooner rather than later that he was sick. There was no point sitting for weeks without funds when there was an alternative. And beyond funds, there was always the possibility of information.
“Lord, kid, they said you’d gone straight! Congratulations on your first arrest - what’d you get jacked for?” Homer Hogu asked, a distinctly unwelcome question.
“Picking the king’s pocket,” Feuilly answered as flippantly as he could. “His crown was hanging out, and someone tried to nip it.”
“Some mix up,” Feuilly insisted, hoping it would become true if he thought it. “A treason investigation. I have gone straight - they pulled in everyone from the workshop, including the women.”
“Treason? Never thought you’d get picked up for anything political. Still, you’re here. Took long enough.”
“Long enough? I was hoping for never.”
“That was a neat piece of work last year, I must say. It’d be a shame if they found out about that. Quick and clean and never identified.”
A chill spread through Feuilly’s limbs. “Is that a threat? Because I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Of course, a familiar face was not only a potential line of contact with the outside world; it was also the perfect pigeon if there was no treason case at all and everything was a charade to force him into accidentally confessing to the murder.
“Relax.” Hogu patted him on the back. “Genuine admiration. Our mutual friends were real proud. But say no more - I’ve got your back.”
“It doesn’t sound like it.”
“It is a shame, though, being pulled in over something ridiculous.”
“The truth would leave me without a head, and I’d really rather keep mine. What are you in for? The pègre?” Feuilly had unconsciously slipped back into the ordinary slang for “robbery”, just as he had, from the moment Hogu appeared, slipped back into his ordinary postures and cocky mode of speech even in the midst of his fear that Hogu had turned informer.
“This dog doesn’t bother with new tricks. Brujon got jacked, too - he’s already at La Force.”
“Fuck. I didn’t need to know that. Fuck. It was the damned carpets, wasn’t it?”
“Furniture of some sort. I got my ass out of there, not much good it did me.”
“Damn. Knew it’d happen sooner or later.”
“Anybody know you’re here?”
“The cops and the Lord. Got picked up this afternoon - everyone at the workshop, even the women.”
“We could use you out on the streets.”
Feuilly sighed. It was just the comment he needed. Someone would know Hogu had been arrested and would make contact with him. Hogu would pass on that he had seen Feuilly. Contact would be made and assistance would be available. Life would again be possible. It was tempting to keep to Hogu’s side, let him be the big man and provide protection. Babet would not look down on him for apprenticing to someone who knew how to get well. But there were greater dangers in knowing Hogu. “Look, the more you and I talk, the more guilty of something I look just by knowing you. Thank you.” He meant to stay cool, but relief and gratitude took over. “Christ, thank you. Best of luck - good health to you - God willing, we’ll see each other on the outside.”
“Who was that?” Laforêt asked when Feuilly returned to their corner.
“A guy from my old neighbourhood. I always thought he was up to no good,” Feuilly lied. “I told him this was hardly the place to trade reminiscences.”
But Hogu’s presence, even at distance, was of comfort, and not just because Hogu was able to make contact with the outside. For his honour, Feuilly had to bear his confinement with the expected fortitude. He had chosen to be the big man himself and not join Hogu, so he would have to keep it up or risk Babet hearing about it. And there was luck on his side: no one else caught up in this mess would be so fortunate as to have a friendly face in the cell with him. He could even pretend that Hogu had been sent particularly to look after him - if the timing had been different, he would not entirely put the notion past Brujon, though Babet would not bother.
The prisoners were ignored through the night, though the lamps were never permitted to burn out. Feuilly dozed a bit, waking once to find Laforêt clinging to him, his head pillowed on Feuilly’s shoulder, as a lover or a child. He saw no weakness in this act. Most men had not been raised by jailbirds, their education consisting in large part how to bear a stretch. Laforêt did not weep, as a man at the other end of the cell did; he merely clung to the only familiar person in sight, the only relic of a life that had ended the moment the inspector had walked in that afternoon. Feuilly felt distinctly sorry for him - the honest man was likely to be ruined. As for himself, he was beginning to wonder if there was any point in getting another forged livret now that his had a police file to match it or if he might as well just seek out Babet when he was finally sprung. Two men down, he’d need the extra hand, and honest work did not seem to be working out too well.
In the morning, they were each given a piece of bread, and several men were taken out at once. “Hey!” Feuilly called after the guard. “You ain’t posted the prices! What’s it cost for a couple bowls of coffee in here?” He paid the required amount - approximately four times what it would cost from the coffee seller at the door that had to be the supplier - and handed one of the bowls of tepid coffee to Laforêt. “Drink up. It’s the best I can afford to do right now.”
“How did you know it was even possible?”
“Everything’s for sale in Paris and always has been. Why do you think they let you keep your money? Hell, you can even buy privileges in solitary at La Force.” Laforêt gave him a look that Feuilly could only interpret as suspicion, but he drank the coffee and even thanked him for it.
They were kept all day with no sign of the inspector. Men were taken out and more took their places as the day progressed. Hogu was taken and gave Feuilly a salute as he went. His going did not distress Feuilly as much as he might have expected the previous night, however. Hogu would be going either to court or to the Conciergerie or even back out onto the streets, and any of those places would be ideal for getting the word to Babet that he had been picked up. The longer he sat behind bars, the more he knew he was going to need Babet.
He and Laforêt spoke little. Feuilly mostly stared at the walls, imagining a life circumscribed by iron and stone, while Laforêt kept his eyes on the floor. Only once in the course of the interminable day did Laforêt break the silence. “You know, when you showed up and Cartoux hired you, Aleçon thought you were a fancy boy. It wasn’t that you were set to the women - he needed a colourist, that’s all there was to it on that score - but that you looked more like the women than like us. I wasn’t friends with him, really, but after a year on the same bench, and him not as able as some to keep his mouth shut, that’s the sort of thing he shared with me. I didn’t know if I believed him. But maybe that’s how you know how things work in these places.”
“I’ve never been a fancy boy,” Feuilly snapped. “I don’t go showing my bum in the Tuileries. You caught me with Fanny, for Christ’s sake.”
“Let me finish. I don’t know what you did before you came to Cartoux. I don’t care how you know anything. I really just wanted to say I’m damned grateful. If you weren’t here, I might take my head to the wall like Aleçon.”
“Don’t be an idiot.” But Feuilly was rather grateful for Laforêt’s presence, too - he might have clung to Hogu otherwise, and that could only have led to greater suspicion.
They were not released that day, or taken to court. They merely sat, looking at the floors and walls and the other prisoners. In the evening, they pooled their money and settled on buying one extra dinner. Prison rations were barely sufficient even for sitting around bored.
Eventually, they started to chat just to kill time. They could talk to each other, or they could talk to the thieves and lechers, which provided little choice. Theatre, actresses, Feuilly shared a few of his daring exploits at the zoo when he was a child. Laforêt had grown up in the country and had very different stories. But they did not really speak of themselves - it was storytelling, not the sharing of confidences.
After three days of sheer boredom, Feuilly was pulled out and taken to a small interrogation room where the inspector was waiting.
“Interesting books you’ve got.”
“Monsieur?” They had searched his room. Of course they had searched his room. Christ, he still had the bag. Had they found the bag? Would they believe the truth, that the bloodstains were his own?
“Not the sort of thing one expects from someone who reads the Gazette de France.”
What did he have? He had traded in Rousseau and Voltaire long ago, which was the only good luck he had yet had in this mess, but what did he have in their place? His mind was racing. There was the Racine, the Republic, he still had the geometry book, his art book - what was he forgetting? What did he own at the moment that was less than White?
“I’m sorry, monsieur, but I don’t know what you mean. I only have whatever could be gotten cheap.”
The inspector dropped a book on the table in front of him. “It’s not the book that interests me.”
Feuilly cursed silently. It wasn’t the book at all that was the trouble - the book was merely a random novel that he had not yet traded for a better. But it was where he had stuck the pamphlet he was proofing for Pan Chrzyszczewski. Which was really very White because it agitated for the return of the traditional Polish monarchy - Pan Chrzyszczewski was not one of the young liberals who thought they could resurrect the Polish nation through an expanded franchise and abolition of the liberum veto.
“Men who read the Gazette de France do not often care about what goes on outside of Paris.”
“It has covered the war in Greece,” Feuilly said as mildly as he could.
“Greece is not Poland.”
Feuilly swallowed hard and decided to exaggerate a bit. “My girl’s father asked me to take a look at it. Correct his French. He gave it to me at mass.” That much was true, though Sophie was hardly his girl. “It’s all about restoring the monarchy.”
“That’s the way it was done in Poland, and only noblemen are allowed to vote. Not a word of it says such a system ought to be instituted in France. The idea is ridiculous. Why should France work on the same system as Poland? The peoples are entirely different. The French system went through a very bad patch, as the Polish system is going through now. In the end, it is to be hoped that they will have a restoration of tradition, just as we have had. Tradition is for the best. Have we not proved that?”
“But you support the war in Greece.”
Feuilly was confused. He thought he was toeing the line, but it seemed to have shifted. “Doesn’t everyone?”
“Haven’t the Greeks traditionally been under Ottoman control?”
“They had ancient kings of their own.”
“Athens wasn’t all of Greece. Sparta had kings. Everyone’s a king in the Iliad.”
“You read a lot?”
“I suppose so, monsieur. I read what I can get my hands on.”
“Not just newspapers and pamphlets.”
“Whatever books I can find.” Did he recognise the art book as stolen property? Is that what this line of interrogation about books was about?
“And you work for a living.”
“You see, boy, I don’t think you are Daniel Feuilly, fanmaker, late of Aubusson. I think you’ve sold more books than you’ve bought. I think you’ve read more books than you currently own. I think you had a drawing master and were taught to declaim in Latin. And I think you and your Bonapartist family know Cartoux better than you’ve let on. If you would like to enlighten me on any of these points, please feel free.”
Feuilly was profoundly confused and terribly scared. Did he somehow match a description of a runaway? “I’m sorry, monsieur, but I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not someone else. I’ve never been to school a day in my life. I never met M. Cartoux or heard his name until I saw his advertisement in the Gazette de France. I like to read, so I keep exchanging books. I’m sorry if I’ve done something wrong by doing that. I’m nobody. I swear.” He was ready to name three different booksellers who could testify that they had dealt with him for years, but he held that card until he had to. One doesn’t rat out innocent men as witnesses to the police unless the only other option is to lose one’s head.
“There is no way that jibbering idiot did what he claims to have done without direction. I know it was the three of you. You’ve too much education to be anything but dangerous. I’ve got a letter out to the prefect of the Orne - then we’ll see who is who.”
But Feuilly had nothing to say. No one in the Orne knew who he was - the tiny village had been chosen because the forger was from the region and knew all the ins and outs of the village records. Aubusson’s town hall had burned a few years ago, making it difficult to prove someone was not from the village if one did not care to make detailed inquiries. Unfortunately, inquiries related to a treason investigation were unlikely to fall to the bottom of the prefect’s list. It would be known within a week - perhaps two if the rains continued bad - that he was not from Aubusson, and he was not entirely certain what he would do then. The only thing to do at the moment was to avoid lying outright and hope something would prove to the inspector that any attention paid him was a blind alley.
Since he would not answer, he was taken back to the holding cell. “Christ, you’re white. What did he want?”
“To jerk me around, that’s all,” Feuilly answered weakly.
But Feuilly shook his head. “There wasn’t anything to tell him. If he wants to think I’m slumming and my family are in cahoots with Cartoux and Aleçon, the truth isn’t going to change his mind.”
“I haven’t got any family. He thinks my name is fake and I must be some bourgeois Bonapartist’s son because he happened to find a few books above my station when he searched my room.”
“He searched your room?” Laforêt asked in a panicked tone.
“He probably searched all our rooms,” Feuilly replied dismissively. “It wasn’t the searching, it was the conclusions he drew. I can’t tell him the truth if he thinks the truth is a lie.”
Laforêt looked as though he wanted to ask more questions, but one of the guards interrupted them. “Feuilly. You got a brother?”
“Yes,” he replied quickly, scrambling to his feet in relief. A brother almost certainly meant Montparnasse had been sent. Contact had been made; some reprieve was come at last.
The boy had grown considerably taller in the past year. Someone had dressed him up and forced him to comb his hair so that he looked vaguely respectable, which was more than Feuilly had ever done for anyone when he was Parnasse’s age. But then, none of their associates had pretended to respectability.
They were permitted to embrace, during which Parnasse thrust a note into Feuilly’s pocket. “What name are you using?” Feuilly whispered.
“Michel.” They parted at a cough from the guard. “I can’t believe you’re in here!” Parnasse suddenly sobbed, rather too fake for Feuilly’s taste.
“It’s all a mistake, I’m sure.” He bent down so they were face to face, not such a distance now as it once had been. “What’s the word from his holiness?”
“I’m to give you these.” A handful of coins - ten francs all told. “And you’re not to worry.”
“He’s not to do anything, mind. It’ll blow over, I’m sure.”
Parnasse shrugged. “You in collège, what does anything else matter?”
“Don’t be getting jealous that I’m skiving off work. I’m bored out of my mind and scared half to death.”
“I gotta go.”
Feuilly nodded, but he pulled the boy in for one last tight embrace, not so that messages could be passed but because he was not entirely certain when he would next see a friendly face, even if Parnasse looked more sullen than anything at the moment. “Thank you for coming. And tell him thank you. For everything.”
Parnasse tipped him a salute as he left. “Your brother?” the guard asked.
“How much for a bottle of wine?” He counted out the necessary coins and beat it back to Laforêt. “We’re in funds.” He felt far more calm now that something was in train.
“I thought you said you didn’t have family.”
“I don’t. I have friends. Contact has been made. With any luck, sometime in the next week or so we might start to hear actual information from someone other than the cops.”
“The next week or so! How long do you think they’ll keep us here?”
He thought for a moment. “Either until they can make enough of a case against me to put me on trial - they probably want you to rat me out - or until the coronation, whichever comes first.”
“It was Aleçon. He was ranting about it all being his wife’s fault, and the inspector was originally trying to get me to say I’d known Aleçon for a long time. But with Aleçon going mad, or perhaps just acting mad, whatever he has done is not going to be as great of a political coup as if there were a conspiracy and we can all be put on trial. So, for the theatre of it, we have Cartoux directing Aleçon the crazed and me the slumming bourgeois Bonapartist. I think you’re to be witness.”
The guard returned with the requested bottle. “Thank you, monsieur. Have a drink yourself.” Feuilly gave him a couple of sous. It would be helpful to have an ally among the guards. “Drink up,” he told Laforêt. “Go on.”
The note was brief. “Treason? What did you do? Hold on. We’ll work something out.” Babet’s handwriting, so one could easily imagine where to insert the curses, and in plain language, which was a relief. Any plans for an escape would be couched in something more than “we’ll work something out.” The money was obviously a down payment for his services. If he ever did make it out, he knew the price of all this assistance would be to go straight back in. And he was willing to pay it if it meant keeping his head. The inspector was too fixated on him for there to be any happy ending.
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